What I did during five minutes of my summer vacation
Forty-two degrees – pretty cool for mid July. I step outside for some warm morning sun and instantly notice the neon blue of a male western bluebird, perched on the roof. It drops to the brick patio, finds an insect, and makes a beeline to the nest box hanging on a small pine twenty feet from the north side of my house. I hear the nestlings clamoring for some morning nourishment.
I slowly walk the fifty feet to the top of where my property slopes down into the woods. I can hear water crashing through the creek bed down below. Three days ago it was drought dry. Four plus inches of rain that deluged the land in less than twenty four hours has the creek alive once again. I’m not here thirty seconds, scanning the woods while savoring the sound of the creek, when a bear lumbers out of the trees off to my right, two hundred feet down the hill. It is heading straight for me. I decide to stay perfectly still and see what it does.
It is a healthy looking, completely black black bear. Whoever named Ursus americanus the black bear didn’t bother to notice that more than half of this species in Colorado is some shade of brown, some as light as cinnamon. But this black bear is quintessentially black. Judging by its size, I’d say it is about three years old, maybe four – not huge, but not small either.
I’ve made every effort to make my property unattractive to bears, which, in essence, means that I’ve eliminated any easy meals. Once I knew that my beary neighbors had awakened from their long winter’s sleep, I quit feeding the birds, I no longer put kitchen scraps in the compost pile, and trash only goes out just before the weekly trash truck arrives. So there is no good reason for this bear to be messing around my house – it must just be passing through. It does not appear to be in any kind of hurry, but it is getting closer. If the bear is aware of me, it makes no indication of it. I notice a slight breeze is moving across the hill from the direction of the bear, so its keen sense of smell wouldn’t have picked me up yet. Just as that thought crosses my mind, the bear veers to its right and heads towards my neighbor’s down the hill. A closer encounter of the Ursus kind does not appear to be on this day’s list of adventures.
Just as the bear changes direction, a doe and its spotted fawn bolt out of the brush and in seconds are out of the scene. They must have been bedded down and took off as soon as they became aware of the bear, which, as far as I can tell, paid them no mind, as it continues on its unhurried saunter across the lower part of my woods.
The bear soon melts into the Gambel oak and is gone. I am now the lone mammal on the hillside. A violet green swallow sails by me and enters another nest box to my left. I hung that box on a large ponderosa twenty years ago, and noticed this spring that that it is leaning and needs another nail. But the swallows moved in before I could get to it, so I guess a crooked nest box is not a problem for violet green swallows.
I see movement on the forest floor ten yards in front of me. A Least chipmunk – named for its diminutive size – darts up to and over a pile of firewood stacked in the woods. I guess my tenure as the hillside’s only mammal is up. Unlike the bear, which moved with a steady grace, this little critter can’t seem to make up its mind where it wants to go. It slips between a couple of logs, shoots across the ground to another pile of wood, darts out and appears to smell a clump of grass, then disappears in another wood stack. Wow, can that little rodent move quickly! All the while, the bluebird continues bringing food to its offspring – there it goes with a large, winged insect in its beak.
It’s been merely five minutes since I stepped out the door. To think I’ve witnessed all of these natural happenings unfolding just outside the walls of my house in only five minutes. How much more would I see, I wonder, if I stayed right here for an hour, or all morning, or all day? I once read that Henry David Thoreau sat in one place for an entire day watching a spider on its web. His Concord neighbors thought he was a lazy oddball, wasting his time watching a spider, or aimlessly sauntering over the countryside, or living in a tiny cabin next to some remote pond. Henry David had some of his own thoughts about those neighbors, “…sometimes I am reminded that the mechanics and shopkeepers stay in their shops not only all the forenoon, but all the afternoon too, sitting with crossed legs, so many of them, – as if the legs were made to sit upon, and not to stand or walk upon, – I think that they deserve some credit for not having all committed suicide long ago.”
The thing is, unlike most summer mornings of the past nearly four decades (or mornings of every other season), when I’d be “off to the races” chasing my music career, or more recently, creating and building a not-for-profit Nature education center, today I could, if I chose, sit here all day and watch these woods. And I could tomorrow too, and the next day, and next week and next month too, if I wanted to. No, I am not unemployed, and I am not sick, and I am not retired. I am simply taking a break.
Somehow, the calendar on my office wall says July 2013. This doesn’t really make sense to me, because, just a year or two ago, or so it seems, the calendar read July, 1976. Somehow, in what seems like just a handful of months, I went from being a just-married, barely out of my teens, head-full-of-dreams young man newly landed in these southern Colorado foothills to a fellow realizing that the age of sixty is just over the horizon. Me, almost sixty? How in the world did I get here?
The truth is, all of these years have been full and rich and ever so busy molding many of those dreams into reality. It’s been a great ride, it truly has. But while I worked and schemed and worked so much more in making all those dreams come true, I somehow failed to notice just how fast the world was spinning.
So, here I am, a couple of weeks into a two-month leave that I managed to craft for myself from my Executive Director position. I am moving slow on this perfect morning, noticing the details of this wooded hillside and all that has happened in it in just five minutes. For these precious summer days in this one precious life of mine that is flying by, after so many years filled with working to make the world a little bit better, I am free to occupy my mind and my body and my days with bears, and birds, and spiders, and Thoreau, and aimless saunters. And my family, and my love of books, and music, and writing, and where my life has been, and where my life is going.
When this break is over, I have every intention of continuing to share my humble contributions to making my community, and this world, a better place. But, after only a couple of weeks, I am noticing that this break is already changing my perspective on things like work, and livelihood, and balance, and how fast life seems to be going by, and what I want my next four decades to be filled with. I have a feeling that, when these few weeks are up and this break is over, I will be spending many more mornings standing on this hilltop, watching these woods, looking for bear and deer and foxes and bluebirds, noticing the leaves on the oaks changing color this fall…
And, as soon as the swallows have moved out of that crooked nest box, I am going to climb up there and fix it.